There are few people left in India today who can remember how terrible the stigma used to be towards anyone afflicted with leprosy. Until quite recently, even those who worked in the field of leprosy experienced discrimination.
Dr Ravi Shankar Sharma was a remarkable man who ran India’s 1st leprosy colony for over 65 years, retiring at the age of 92. As a young doctor he was called to serve those outcast by society by his mentor and human rights activist Vinoba Bhave.
Set on 400 acres of donated land, Dattapur provided sanctuary to thousands of outcaste men, women and children who had this dreaded disease. Here they could produce anything from food, milk and oil to footwear and clothing – the only thing that couldn’t be produced was salt.
Dattapur became a model example of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of self-sufficiency and later attracted the attention of India’s 1st Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru followed by many other prime ministers and dignitaries, all hosted by the charismatic Dr Sharma.
Dr Sharma and his wife Vasanti were humanitarians who spent 13 years serving the poor in Bihar before joining Dattapur. They were closely associated with some of India’s most prominent social reformers and humanitarians, such as Vinoba Bhave, Jayaprakash Narayan, and Dr Sushila Naya, who was Mahatma Gandhi’s friend and personal physician (and who Usha and I had the privilege of knowing).
Despite these associations Dr Sharma remained a very humble man. He was a Brahmin (high caste Hindu) from a wealthy background, and yet he was blind to caste, creed and financial status, and all the extreme social prejudices that divided his contemporaries at that time. He was very knowledgeable of the Bible, the Koran as well as the Bhagavad-Gita. He was an enlightened, forward thinking and loving man.
He had a framed picture of a leprosy patient called “Jangulu” in his room at the colony. When I asked him who the important man in the picture was he said that Jangulu had been an uneducated man from a poor background whose spiritual devotion and kindness had inspired him. Dr Sharma lead his staff and the patients by example and I remember he would roll his sleeves up and sweep the grounds of the colony along with his workers.
My association with Dr Sharma goes back 22 years and Usha’s 32 years. He became a father figure to us both and we enjoyed many shared lunches together over the years.Years later after establishing our own work in support of outcaste women, Dr Sharma encouraged WIN to rent empty buildings within the colony. He delighted in the knowledge that Usha and I had “returned home to Dattapur”.
In 2009 he wrote a letter inviting us to run the colony; an undertaking we believed at the time to be too large. That he considered us worthy is one of our proudest moments and we cherish that letter along with our many precious memories.
This is the end of an important chapter in our lives. In his memory we endeavour to work harder for Women in Need.